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Students focus of film festival

Peter Crimmins Daily Planet correspondent
Saturday February 10, 2001

As well intentioned as they are, high school video productions are marked by a level of discipline given to home movies crossed with the enthusiasm of a term paper. Something only a mother could love, and she could be jiving, too. 

“When you think of high school filmmakers you think of silly fighting films,” said Berkeley High School junior Portia Boni. She and her curatorial compatriots – Natalia Ackley-Barahona, Zachary Cohen, Dario Fernandez, Chevalier Patterson and Jesse Roll-Beyea, all members of the Berkeley High Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS) program – have waded though almost 75 submitted tapes of student work to come up with a program of which to be proud.  

The 2nd annual Berkeley High School/Bay Area Film and Video Festival, screening this Sunday at the Pacific Film Archive, is culled from works submitted by East Bay high school students: documentaries, experimental pieces, parodies, animation, and music videos. And one silly fighting film for good measure. 

Some thoughtful, some slapstick, these filmmakers’ intentions may be to push a social envelope, or to have fun with a camcorder. “Last year was a little more avant-garde,” said Maria Chavez, a Cal student and ArtsBridge scholar who mentored the curatorial process, “this year they chose a wider range.” Casting the net wider enabled them to catch works that were clearly intended to have fun with the medium and take a stab at teenage culture. A hotbed of adolescent output is Pirate Productions at Pittsburgh High School, from whence comes “Menacing Phantom,” two minutes of pure swordfighting, a la Star Wars, featuring plastic light sabers and surprisingly impressive choreography and sound mix. 

Another Pirate Production is a music video by 5-Gether called “Hardest Part of Breaking Up,” in which the pop vocal boy-group laments their kleptomaniac girlfriends. It may be poking fun at N’Synch, or it may be an homage. (After the recent Superbowl half-time show, who can tell the difference?) The underground party scene is sent up in Walker Koppleman-Brown’s “One Rave,” a seven-minute blurt about the frustration of looking for the elusive something-to-do on a Friday night. Koppleman-Brown, a senior at Berkeley High and the son of Berkeley-based filmmaker Charles Koppleman, said his film was not made through any campus group, but as a teaching assistant to a freshman video class he had access to equipment. 

He was also a member of last year’s festival programming team, and had been concerned that the festival would not continue.  

“We didn’t think there was anybody else who wanted to do this,” he said. When Portia and her colleagues stepped up to the plate, Koppleman-Brown’s offered his strongest piece of veteran advice: to not be discouraged by the lack of submissions. 

After the eventual flood of tapes arrived, Portia said one of the challenges was getting the right mix. Haphazardly placing works of serious intent inside an array of comedic pieces risked robbing the former of the reading they are due. Kabu Nietschmann’s “The Next Generation,” an impressionistic video of dance and Santana music, touches on the humanistic hopefulness of physical movement and community – arguably the spiritual intention of rave parties – and compliments Koppleman-Brown’s humorous piece. 

The documentary discipline is well executed in “Port Chicago,” a non-fiction, historical account of a WWII naval disaster. Using archival photos and an interview with an historian, the filmmakers’ telling of the racist aftermath of an ammunition explosion would not be misplaced on PBS television. 

The film that best captures an intuitive filmmaking touch and sheer goofball yuks is John Sobel’s “Water Polo: Triumph of Glory.” A mock-documentary starting with an incompetent high school water polo team and their water-less practice pool, the 15-minute video inventively exhausts all the omic potentials of Zen training, chorus-line calisthenics, and inflatable water wings. 

Sobel’s deft hand in the editing demonstrates the wisdom that comedy is all about timing, and he gets kudos for assembling a troupe of actors with seemingly unquenchable excitement for absurd slapstick. The idiotic physical humor is reminiscent of Saturday Night Live (remember the synchronized swimming skit with Martin Short? How could a teenager like Sobel know that one?) and older, intellectually stunted Little Rascals. 

The Berkeley High School/East Bay Film and Video Festival screens Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Pacific Film Archive. For ticket information call 642-5249.